Former sorority pledge Jo Hannah Burch and former professors Theresa Crapanzano and Joseph Terry have filed suit against Young Harris College in Georgia, alleging that the school displayed reckless indifference to the "abusive and sexually charged hazing among fraternities and sororities" on campus and that the college retaliated against Crapanzano and Terry for trying to bring attention to the hazing.
Jezebel reported on the details yesterday, including a statement from YHC spokesman Jay Stroman that the allegations were "false and outrageous." YHC released a statement asserting also that "all matters pertaining to this report were handled immediately and properly."
But as writers for Jezebel and Inside Higher Ed pointed out, last year’s events provide ample reasons to be suspicious of the school’s actions. IHE‘s Carl Straumsheim describes a situation that is all too familiar to FIRE:
Crapanzano … began working on an article about hazing that would run in Enotah Echoes, the student-run newspaper at Young Harris, for which she served as faculty adviser. Progress on the article was halted as Crapanzano said she was notified by Jennifer S. Hallett, associate professor and chair of the communication studies department, that the article would have to receive preclearance by the college’s lawyer. On April 28, Crapanzano said she received word that Cox had killed the article. Both Crapanzano and Terry said they complained by e-mail to Cox and other members of the administration.
The next week, Crapanzano’s contract was terminated—three months before its expiration date, Aug. 1.
Though YHC is a private institution not bound by the First Amendment, this type of prior restraint on speech runs counter to the idea that all institutions of higher education should strive to foster open discussion on a range of issues, particularly those that are important to students. YHC’ Guide to Student Life acknowledges this goal briefly in its its policy on "discrimination," saying that "the College respects the right of its community to exercise free speech and freedom of expression…." And YHC’s website sets out the "duty" of the student paper at issue, Enotah Echoes: "to be fair, balanced and accurate in our newsgathering [and] reporting. … We are advocates of the First Amendment, but we are also respectful of the power of media…."
This "but" becomes problematic in YHC’s Media Communications Policy, which states, "It is … necessary that the Office of Communications and Marketing be notified of any negative incidents that are likely to rise to the level of a news story." And though it comes under the heading of "Advertising/Promotional Policy," it is worrisome that YHC does not see the impossibility of fulfilling all of the following objectives at once (emphasis added):
To ensure that all material released to the public relating to events or activities at Young Harris College is accurate, consistent, and represents the College in the most positive light, any advertisement[,] public service announcement, … brochure, or other collateral material must be reviewed by the Office of Communications and Marketing before it is printed or submitted for publication or broadcast. (Emphasis Added).
This may be possible in a fantasy world, but in reality, news is not always going to be positive if it is to be accurate. And if the accusations in the complaint are accurate—which seem plausible given the institution’s policies—YHC has demonstrated through its behavior that open discourse and candid reporting are of secondary importance compared to the school’s image. Whether or not a college is bound by the First Amendment, censorship of students’ reports of hazing is a danger to the community, a detriment to the college as a "marketplace of ideas," and a loss for student journalists.